The Origin of the Specious

If there's one thing that irritates me more than Freudian bullshit, it's Freudian bullshit being applied to my hero, Charles Darwin. You can imagine my reaction, therefore, to reading the following in the latest edition of The London Review of Books:

'Any form represented by few individuals,' Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, 'will, during fluctuations in the seasons or the number of its enemies, run a good chance of utter extinction.' That both these words need qualifying should give us pause. Darwin could see the appeal of extinction; or rather, something about extinction appealed to him. When he describes the all-consuming struggle of species to survive and reproduce there is occasionally, lurking in his sentences, something about the all too human option of giving up. We are, after all, the animals that are making the seasons fluctuate and the animals with a genius for creating enemies. All our self-destructive behavious, whatever else we think it is, may be an attempt to put a stop to the struggle. And if we begin to hate our own struggle for survival, we may want to suppress it in others. Clearly, our capacity to destroy other species - not to mention others that belong to our own species - was the most staggering fact of the last century. It is not surprising that it occurred to some people that there might be a secret struggle not to survive, that utter extinction might be our best chance.

Who is this Freudian joker? I wondered, irritatedly flicking to the author information section, where I learnt that the chap who wrote the piece, Adam Phillips, has edited the new Penguin Freud.

Now, I'm not in the habit of writing to such august intellectual journals as The London Review of Books, but I was damned if I was going to let this nonsense go unchallenged, so I sent them an e-mail. Here's what I wrote:

Adam Phillips (LRB, 31 October) has been editing Freud for far too long. Darwin didn't need specious psychoanalyical reasons for seeing an 'appeal' in extinction. In the paragraph of Origin of Species following the one quoted in Phillips's opening sentence, we learn the real reason for extinction's appeal:

"I think it inevitably follows, that as new species in the course of time are formed through natural selection, others will become rarer and rarer, and finally extinct."

Extinction appealed to Darwin because it is a logical consequence of his theory of natural selection; not because he somehow 'hate[d] our own struggle for survival'.

So, as Freud would no doubt have said, stick that one up your anus and retain it there, Mr Phillips.


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